Tag Archives: art

Dream Team

May 24, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

There’s a dazzling, eye-catching photo that adorns the bare-bones brick wall inside the photography studio at 1820 Vinton St.

A lovely girl sits in a deep-blue cloud of a dress, highlighted by silver accents. In the background, the grayish sky is streaked with pink-gold clouds. It’s a striking image, and an excellent example of the kind of work one can expect from the gentlemen of Elite, a boutique photography studio based in the historic Vinton Street Business District in South Omaha.

Elite’s Bernardo Montoya and Eric Gutierrez are an impressive pair. Montoya is dressed impeccably in light, subdued colors and wearing a fedora, a signature look for him. Gutierrez, on the other hand, is wearing a simple black T-shirt with dark blue jeans and a rust-colored vest, his brown, gray-streaked hair pulled back from his face.

Despite their contrasting appearances, it’s clear these business partners have an inspiring, deep, mutual respect for one another.

The two met about six years ago at an Omaha Police Department holiday event Montoya organized. At the time, Gutierrez was working in construction, but had long been interested in taking pictures.

“Photography has been a hobby for—the last 20 years,” he says, somewhat questioningly, chuckling a little.

After discovering Gutierrez was an amateur photographer, Montoya asked if he would like to volunteer his services for some of the events Montoya put together. Eventually, they were getting asked to do so much side work, they decided they should try to really make a go of it and invest in themselves and their talent.

Initially, the two worked out of Gutierrez’s Elkhorn home, using his living room, dining room, and kitchen as studio space. But about two years ago, they started working on their brick-and-mortar studio on Vinton Street.

Montoya says when they moved into the space, it was in “awful” shape, so they immediately started renovating.

“Walls were demolished, the false ceiling was removed, original floors were salvaged, and a new bathroom was built,” he says. “Every day we want to continue making modifications.” He said their next project is the façade.

Renovations aside, the neighborhood itself seems like the perfect place for Elite Photography. The developing business fits right in with the community’s burgeoning art scene, and they couldn’t be happier with their location. Montoya says it’s a great neighborhood with incredible potential that he believes the city plans on developing.

Gutierrez agrees: “I think that this street opens a door to, not just the Hispanic community, but to the community in general.”

“I never imagined the possibility of having a photography business like this, because I am a graphic designer,” Montoya said. He previously worked as a reporter in Mexico and in the U.S., taking pictures for articles and other projects as a part of his job. “But this was not my priority,” he says. “I discovered my passion for photography talking with Eric.”

Though Gutierrez had initially chosen a more cautious path, the passion had been there since he was young.

“At some point, when I was going to college, I told my mom that I wanted to be a photographer. She said, ‘No, don’t do that. Just do it as a hobby.’ And that was a mistake,” he says. “I always talk with parents about that. I tell them, you know, you’ve got to encourage your kids to do whatever they want.”

Fortunately, Gutierrez and Montoya have many opportunities to speak with and encourage parents, thanks to a partnership with Omaha Public Schools and the many high school senior and quinceañera photos they do.

Montoya says his inspiration and motivation comes from the looks on peoples’ faces when they first see how they look in their photos.

“We are talking about dreams, the dreams of the people,” he says. “When they talk to you and say, ‘I want to take a beautiful picture…I want to see a picture where I feel beautiful,’ it’s more than taking a simple picture. It’s making a connection with a person—seeing what they want.”

Making those dreams come true is their goal. Which makes perfect sense, since that’s what they seem to have done for each other, something that is very clear when they talk about their life’s work.

“I always say Bernardo was like an angel for me,” Gutierrez says, “because I didn’t know if I was going to do this for a living.”

But while they’ve been fortunate to find each other and develop a successful business, Montoya and Gutierrez have faced plenty of challenges, including Montoya’s recent diagnosis of a rare form of cancer—stage 2 soft tissue sarcoma.

In his typical, always-moving-forward style, Montoya is not letting the disease slow him down.

“Now I can see life with a different color,” Montoya says. “Yes, I have cancer, but it’s like I have the flu. I’m OK right now. I don’t know what will happen with me tomorrow. But you never know what will happen tomorrow—or in a couple of weeks.”

Instead, he says he’s using the diagnosis as a reminder to enjoy life, and his family, friends, work, and the connections he makes with
new people.

“I don’t want to think any bad things,” Montoya says. “I have a future, a plan. I know what I want. I have dreams and I am working toward my dreams.” 

facebook.com/EliteStudioPhotography

This article was printed in the May/June 2017 edition of Encounter.

Comic Relief

Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Illustration by Tim Mayer

Forget Batman and his gadgets, or Thor and his biceps. There’s a new hero on the block—“Oldguy,” a spandex-sporting, crime-fighting senior citizen who seeks out injustice equipped with his “denture grapple.” While Oldguy may have the mighty ability to scale the First National Bank Tower, his illustrator is just another everyday citizen of Omaha. But that doesn’t mean Tim Mayer isn’t super, too.

Armed with a unique skill and the ability to seamlessly adapt different drawing styles, artist Tim Mayer’s “Batcave” is his drafting table. Whether he’s working on a comic book or the cover of a sci-fi novel, his illustrations pack a punch — all of them uniquely different in appearance, but always skillfully, thoughtfully, and imaginatively executed to meet a project’s needs.

“I’ve been drawing since I could hold a spoon,” Mayer says. “It was one of those things that just instantly clicked for me.”

But as is the case with many freelance artists, the work didn’t instantly come clicking in after he  earned his bachelor’s degree in studio art from the University of Nebraska-Omaha in 2008. While working a stint as a shoe salesman, he picked up a few smaller drawing gigs. That all changed after he began attending creative workshops at Legends Comics & Coffee (5207 Leavenworth St.). It was in the comic shop’s basement where he met Jeff Lawler, a local writer who pitched him the idea for his next big project.

Together, the two created The Anywhere Man, a comic about an ex-solider who, after a freak accident, has the power to instantly transport anywhere. Following Anywhere Man, Mayer illustrated two additional comic/short story hybrids — Oldguy and Prophetica, a digital comic that tells a fictional tale about prophecies, brutal ancient rituals, and the fate of civilization hanging on a thread.

“I struggle to see consistency in my work,” Mayer admits. “I look at one thing I illustrated compared to another and I see a completely different side of me.”

One constant for Mayer has been his involvement with the Ollie Webb Center Inc. (1941 S. 42nd St.). Mayer became a mentor there five years ago and now leads art and drawing classes at the organization, which strives to enrich the lives of individuals with developmental disabilities through support, programs, and advocacy.

“I introduce students to a variety of visual storytelling methods,” Mayer says. “Whether or not a student wants to pursue something in the creative field, I see a lot of potential in each of them.”

Mayer and his work bring new meaning to the term “self-portrait.” From whimsical sketches of a doe-eyed girl to haunting black-and-white skull designs, everything Mayer creates looks different on the surface, but always reflects the man behind the pen.

“My experiences and personality always show in my work,” Mayer says. “If I look at something I created, I remember personally what was happening to me the moment it was drawn. It’s my own public journal.”

timmayer.wordpress.com

This article was printed in the May/June 2017 edition of Encounter.

Bringing Meaningful Design Conversations to Omaha

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Architecture as an intellectual endeavor extends far beyond brick-and-mortar structures. For designer Andrew Conzett, architecture is a form of problem-solving and way to rewrite immediate questions about the built environment through a culturally sensitive lens. Early in his career, he positioned his curiosity at one of Omaha’s most creatively focused firms, developed numerous discipline-blurring projects, and helped curate a robust series of lectures with the Omaha chapter of the American Institute of Architects. This fusion of localized projects and international discourse is one that not only pushes his own practice forward, but also challenges existing norms and perceptions of regional architecture.

Conzett grew up in Omaha. Since a young age, he was inspired by his father, a civil engineer at a large international firm, and his mother, who was consistently involved with social service and nonprofit organizations. As a soon-to-be licensed architect, Conzett is a cocktail of both. He has always been keenly interested in art and landscape, both of which were influential in his childhood years and helped to inform his atypical response to the “I-always-wanted-to-be-an-architect” story ubiquitous amongst peers (many say it was from building with LEGO bricks as a child). During high school, a design competition piqued his interest. This community-focused extracurricular project, which combined multi-disciplinary teamwork and a design-based approach, prompted him to apply to the College of Design at Iowa State University.

While at Iowa State, his intense studio assignments were mixed with conversations and projects with artists and creative thinkers. Working alongside a diversity of artistic studies pushed him to see the multiplicity of architecture. During his final year in the architecture program, one of Conzett’s classmates responded to his non-binary projects by asking, “Do you want to be an installation artist or architect?” Conzett did not know how to respond; however, this prompt of either/or has now become a defining feature of his practice.

While studying, Conzett diversified his architectural coursework with internships at the Omaha Public Library and the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, where he interned with artist Sean Ward and curator Hesse McGraw. After graduating in 2010, he moved to Omaha and was soon commissioned to design an office pod installation at the headquarters of Bozell. The project resulted in a spatial intervention that was recognized by the AIA Central States Region’s Excellence in Design Awards for “Detail Honor and the Interior Design Best of Year Award for Budget Interiors.”

His interests in a diverse range of project types brought him to his current position at Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture in 2011. At the collaborative open studio in north downtown where architects work alongside interior designers, graphic designers, artists, and engineers, Conzett is staying busy outside the office as well.

His CV for research-based and experimental projects is dense. Stepping one foot outside the firm, Conzett has worked collaboratively on award-winning projects with Emerging Terrain, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Council Bluffs Park System, including River’s Edge Park. Each project allows him to intensely research form, material, and site. They also provide an instant design-to-built-project process that allows ideas to come to fruition faster than with traditional design-bid-build projects, which often take years to complete. These research-based projects also speak to his interest in architecture as built form that has the ability to blur lines between disciplines and methodologies.

For Conzett, “contemporary architecture practice requires thinking about new methods and materials, and thus inspires me to seek out unique project types as a way to expand my knowledge of design and the built environment.”

His most recent endeavor, the AIA Omaha lecture series, conflates his efforts in community activities and intellectual pursuits. Organized in collaboration with Ross Miller and other AIA Omaha members, the 2017 lecture series is a thought-provoking forum for design thinking. Bringing in award-winning international and national architects, such as Mike Nesbit of Morphosis in Los Angeles and Kai-Uwe Bergmann of Bjarke Ingles Group in Copenhagen, the role of these lectures are two-fold. First, they are an opportunity for professional architects and the general public to participate in architectural discourse. Secondly, the lectures provide a voice for a range of architectural practices that are advancing disciplinary boundaries.

While the series may seem hyper-niche, the visiting lecturers produce a diverse range of project types. These architects discuss the scholarly and tactile impact of design beyond simply making buildings. As award-winning content creators, the lecturers stimulate the public and challenge architects to aim their work to an elevated level of design excellence.

“It is always good to hear professionals talk about their design process and work,” says Emily Andersen, owner of DeOld Andersen Architecture. “But it is even more important to have lecturers come to Omaha that are truly challenging assumptions. The lectures bring the potential of a meaningful conversation that allows us to see into the creative process of other design professionals. And so I really appreciate the work that AIA does, as well as Design Alliance Omaha to help bring that discourse here.”

In all of his work, Conzett is running against the boundaries of the discipline with a keen understanding that traditional definitions of architecture and the built environment deserve to be challenged and pushed forward. “Opportunities such as professional work with [Alley Poyner], design-build exhibition and installation commissions, and the AIA Omaha lecture series are all ways for me to continue to experiment with and better understand the practice of architecture,” he says.

Visit aiaomaha.org/lecture-series for more information.

This article was printed in the Summer 2017 edition of B2B.

May 19-21 Weekend Picks

May 17, 2017 by

PICK OF THE WEEK—Sunday, May 21: Ladies, if whiskey and dogs are two of your favorite things, then Havana Garage is your destination this Sunday. The Nebraska chapter of Women Who Whiskey is getting together at Havana Garage to sample some hand-selected Blanton’s Bourbon Barrel they recently acquired. The best part, though? Your babies are welcome in this bar! So bring out the pups and have some lazy Sunday afternoon fun. To join the group and stay updated on the fun, go here.

Thursday, May 18 – Friday, May 19: The Big Omaha 2017 Conference started this Wednesday, but if you missed the kickoff party at Berry & Rye (1105 Howard St. in Old Market), you can still make it to the midway party across Howard Street at Laka Lona Rum Club tonight. Friday’s adventures begin with coffee from Beansmith and end with the closing party at Hotel Deco. If you don’t have a conference ticket, be sure to RSVP. For a complete list of all the happenings (and to RSVP), head here.

Saturday, May 20: The 2nd Annual Omaha Food Truck Rodeo: Part 1 is coming to Benson this Saturday and attendees will have all day to sample food from the 15-20 local trucks who stake their claim. Outdoor seating areas, bars, and beer garden will be set up and ready to satisfy your drinking/lounging needs. For the more active, there will also be a DJ spinning, so you can shake off some of the stress from the week. Should the weather get a little iffy, no worries. You can take refuge in Reverb Lounge or one of the many other favorite stops in downtown Benson. Round up your friends and head out to taste some of the best curbside fare Omaha has to offer. Find out more here.

Saturday, May 20: Harrah’s Stir Concert Cove is bringing Grammy-award-winning indie darlings The Shins to Council Bluffs. The band is promoting their fifth studio album, Heartworms, released in March of this year. Chances are, they will still play some fan favorites, like “Caring Is Creepy” and “Kissing The Lipless,” but be sure to check out their latest tunes so you can sing along, especially to the catchy “Cherry Hearts.” For ticket information, sail here.

Saturday, May 20 – Sunday, September 17: Have you ever wanted to experience the thrill of being a spy? Then you need to check out The Durham Museum’s upcoming exhibit, Top Secret: License to Spy. This interactive display will test your skills in the psychology, technology, and science of being a real-life spy. You will receive your top-secret “Spy File” when you arrive and from then on, the mystery unfolds. Night vision cameras and laser beams will be involved, but that’s all you can know for now. To get to the full story, you will have to infiltrate The Durham and bust out your sleuthing skills. But hurry! You only have until Sept. 17 to uncover the truth. To get started, head here to start uncovering your clues.

Sunday, May 21: Looking for opportunities to help out in your community? The Omaha Girls Rock Volunteer Expo can help you out with that! There will be information tables and facilitated discussions about our community. The talks start at 1 p.m. and cover social justice through music, being an ally, and creating safe spaces within the community. You can also sign up for Omaha Gives, and if you’re worried about missing lunch, there will be food provided by Amsterdam Falafel and Kabob. So no excuses! Get down to KANEKO and start making the world a better place. For more info, take a look here.

Dave’s World

May 4, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Prolific painter and tattooist Dave Koenig says people often ask him, “How do you develop a style?” or, more precisely, “How did you develop your style?”

For an artist who is known and recognized from Omaha all the way to Chaudes-Aigues, France, for his particular brushstroke and trail of ink, Koenig humbly says he doesn’t recognize a certain style in his work. He just sees himself as someone who draws “the same stuff everybody else draws.”

“I’m not the most technically refined tattooer, and I’m not the most technically refined artist. But I tend to try to pull a level of emotion, on a subconscious level, to every piece I draw,” Koenig says. “And I feel like that creates something different.”

His colleague of more than 10 years and co-worker at Tenth Sanctum Tattoo (1010 S. 10th St.), Tobias Caballero, says one element that contributes to Koenig’s style is his use of line. “If you look at his lines, you’ll be able to see Dave in it,” Caballero says. “It’s almost like watching Bruce Lee fight. You can tell that Bruce Lee has found the best of everything and combined it into his fighting. It’s the same way Dave has compiled this formula of how he creates art.”

Koenig says line work is a crucial component to some of his most requested work—like tattoos of his signature female figures. “The lines that you put on them—say it’s the hair, or where their eyes or mouth are—it has to be exact,” he says. “The line has to count. One slight off with one of those lines, it can completely change the emotion of the piece. I like to take the time to refine each of them.”

Before he began tattooing, or started taking his painting too seriously, Koenig says it was his graffiti-style art he was known for. It is, in fact, what got his foot in the door to begin apprenticing at his first tattoo shop 17 years ago.

“He learned really young in life that style is something he valued,” Caballero says. “It all started when he was doing his graffiti and he started integrating that into his tattoos, and that influenced his paintings, and then he just simply continued to refine it, and it turned into something only he can do now. It’s absolutely beautiful.”

Influenced by Japanese and American traditional tattooing styles, as well as a mix of art nouveau and art deco, Koenig has crafted a signature look that is not only recognizable but also heavily sought after.

Koenig’s tattoo regulars and hopefuls are so obsessed with his work that they will wait—often lengthy periods—to obtain their very own Dave Koenig masterpiece. His tattooing schedule, on average, is booked out at a staggering 18-24 months.

His artwork can be found screen-printed on shirts at Curbside Clothing (505 S. 11th St.), illustrated on the beer cans at Brickway Brewery & Distillery (1116 Jackson St.), hanging on the walls of bars and businesses, and covering the bodies of his devoted tattoo clients. It can also be found across Europe and South America, in tattoo magazines and books, and hanging on walls around small towns in France and Italy.

The charm of his personal brand of art has proven strong. In 2016, Koenig was asked to design the poster for the 2016 Chaudes-Aigues tattoo convention in France. For the poster, he created his own rendition of the town’s coat of arms. The Chaudes-Aigues family, whom the town is named after, was so seduced with his vision that they adopted his work to use as the new version of their family crest.

When Zac Triemert, owner of Brickway, decided to open the brewery in 2013, he says Koenig was the first person he thought of to incorporate into the business’ branding. He was hired to create the artwork for Brickway’s logo, signage, and the labels on their Bison Series beer.

“His work is iconic. You can’t see Dave’s work without knowing that is absolutely Dave Koenig’s work,” Triemert says. “And I love his style. It’s really fun, strong, and aggressive.”

Caballero dubs Koenig’s work as difficult to describe with mere words. He says it has to be seen to be understood.

“He’s found the perfect combination of understanding technique as well as understanding how to be loose with his work—as well as understanding color theory,” Caballero says. “He’s kind of created a perfect storm for himself where he doesn’t wind up in a place where he’s repeating himself. He’s always working toward becoming better, and he’s managed something he’s built into his own personal empire.”

Despite his ever-growing fan base and unending praise, Koenig never boasts about his success. The way he sees it, he’s still “just some Omaha kid” and says he’s “blessed and happy people like my work.”

Although humble about his impact on the art and tattoo scene, his talent and appeal are undeniable. He has managed to captivate audiences around the globe with his technical skill, knack for detail, and ability to evoke striking emotion.

Now that he has created his own strong sense of brand, Koenig says, it’s on to his next goal: How to help the world through his art?

“The whole point is ‘What’s your legacy?’,” Koenig says. “I just draw pictures; how do you help everything as a whole through drawing pictures? It’s the tracks we leave behind that people remember forever. You’ve got to make sure to leave some big tracks and make sure they’re walking in the right direction.”

dkoenigart.com

This article was printed in the May/June 2017 edition of Encounter.

Required Listening

April 27, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

For years, Chelsea Balzer and Matt Walker ran in the same circles, but somehow didn’t cross paths until Balzer joined the art performance group aetherplough in 2010 and was suddenly thrust into a musical relationship with Walker. Their undeniable compatibility was too much to ignore, and the duo soon formed their own outfit—Vital Organs—a band that fosters Walker’s unquenchable thirst for bold melodies and cinematic qualities, but is danceable at the same time. 

“Back in the day, I was exclusively into hard rock music,” Walker says. “In recent years, I had been dying to write something that made me want to dance.”

Balzer, on the other hand, gravitated toward country artists like Reba McEntire and early LeAnn Rimes because of her father, a loyal country music fan. 

“I would perform for our neighbors and their friends, which I think helped me develop that frontwoman identity from early on,” Balzer says. “But once I hit middle school, I was pretty into Alanis Morissette and Fiona Apple, and then soon after I got into stuff like Nine Inch Nails, P.J. Harvey, and The Cure. I’ve always loved vocalists who are brave and provocative—from Christina Aguilera to Zach de la Rocha.” 

Fortunately, Vital Organs isn’t their first endeavor, as aetherplough thoroughly prepared them for what they would do in the future. The collective was built on collaborative creativity and taught them how to compromise.

“It always felt a little like we had no idea what we were doing at the beginning of a project,” Walker says. “As more people threw in their ideas and questions, it would start to take on a life of its own, and suddenly you’re rehearsing a full piece that you all helped bring into being. It was magical.

“I would say our whole philosophy for creating and collaborating is informed by that experience,” he continues. “aetherplough taught us to say, ‘Yes,’ to go all in, to be flexible, and also to listen to each other in a dasdrtist, and I’m so grateful to have been encouraged to play and explore in that community.”

“I personally feel that it taught me to think of all art and performance as ritual that has the power to change its players,” Balzer adds. 

Officially established in 2015, Vital Organs dove right in and pulled from Omaha’s rich musical community, including Make Believe Recordings’ CEO/engineer Rick Carson. The Grammy Award-nominated producer worked on the group’s debut album, The Hysterical Hunger, a decision they didn’t hesitate to make once they fully realized Carson’s “rare combination of expertise, intuition, and top-notch gear.” The album itself gave Balzer and Walker opportunities to explore feminist ideals and the theme of honoring inner desires. 

“We were both going through some real loss, and we needed to rediscover some kind of inner guidance toward true north,” Balzer explains. “For us, that feels like a hunger. We liked the idea of reclaiming the word ‘hysteria,’ which has previously been used as a weapon against women and as a form of gaslighting, but ultimately implies that emotion itself is untrustworthy and that giving yourself over to an experience is dangerous and even insane. We feel that this message is really prevalent in society today and continues to cause harm. We wanted the album to be a way of proclaiming to ourselves and others that we are taking the leap and giving in to that hunger.” 

Drawn to synthesizers and soaring melodies, Vital Organs is actively honing in on its distinctive sound. However, they’re admittedly still trying to figure out how to navigate the rough waters as an indie band. 

“It’s a lot of work and also a lot of head-scratching,” Walker says. “We have been both discouraged and really honored by the process of getting our work ‘out there.’ Some aspects of it are much harder than we anticipated, and yet there are these people who seem to appear from thin air and develop this relationship with your music, and really want to help you succeed. That has been a beautiful experience.”

Vital Organs plans on hitting the road this summer, despite Balzer being in grad school in Boston and Walker busy working at Omaha Children’s Museum. They managed to carve out a few weeks to play some new cities and share the bill with other bands. 

“We know that the music will always mean something different to us than it means to others,” Walker says. “Every song reflects a time in our lives and a message we felt we needed to express. At the same time, we hear the songs and sort of forget that we wrote them. There is a kind of energetic release that comes from finishing songs and letting them exist in the world. It feels simultaneously intimate and mysterious.” 

facebook.com/vitalorgansband

This article was printed in the May/June 2017 edition of Encounter.

 

Mr. & Mrs. Fink

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The evolution of CLOSENESS was quite literally a matter of the heart—not in a cheesy, romantic musing type of way, but the actual blood-pumping, life-sustaining muscular organ. Husband-wife duo Orenda Fink (Azure Ray) and Todd Fink (The Faint) are the masterminds behind the electro-dream-pop project. The couple say they always wanted to merge musical styles, but they could never quite find the time. Todd was touring in support of The Faint’s last album, Doom Abuse, and Orenda was involved in her solo work. As fate would have it, a frightening medical emergency involving Orenda’s heart temporarily brought everything to a screeching halt. In November 2015, she went under the knife to repair a birth defect that was
originally misdiagnosed.

“I had it my whole life, but never knew how dangerous it was,” Orenda admits. “They couldn’t believe I was still alive [laughs]. With my condition, I had a bunch of extra electrical pathways on my heart that were not supposed to be there. They had to get rid of them.”

“We realized there was no better time to do this,” Todd adds. “If we were going to do it, we had to do it now. After her surgery, everything became more urgent.”

Todd and Orenda have been a unit for more than 15 years, and it just so happens both are incredibly talented musicians in their own right. It was because of this shared love and compassion for one another that Orenda finally took her arrhythmia seriously. 

“I’ve had episodes my whole life,” she says. “A couple of weeks before I was diagnosed, my heart went into an abnormal rhythm. Normally, it would kick back in, but this time it just stayed. I was just so used to it that I was traveling, smoking cigarettes, hanging out with friends—but Todd was like, ‘Um, you need to go to the doctor immediately [laughs].’”

Orenda flew back to Omaha and went straight to the doctor. Two-and-a-half weeks later, the Georgia native was having heart surgery, which was the first time she’d ever had any kind of surgical procedure. What was supposed to be a three-hour event turned into 12 hours, but thankfully she pulled through. 

“Your heart is such an immediate thing—it has to be going,” she says with a hint of sarcasm. “It made us kind of realize how precious and fragile life is, I guess.” 

Back at home, she sunk into a depression, which can be common for heart patients. 

“When you are faced with your own mortality so intensely, you get depressed,” she says. 

Still recuperating in sweatpants and socks, CLOSENESS took its initial steps and Orenda quickly found solace in making music with her husband. 

“We started the band almost immediately,” she says. “It was cathartic. Something about that experience [surgery] made me realize now there were no more excuses not to do it.” 

On March 10, CLOSENESS unveiled its debut EP, Personality Therapy, and had its album release party later that night at Omaha’s beloved hole-in-the wall O’Leaver’s, where Todd and Orenda played to a packed house. Naturally, the Omaha music community came out in droves to support one of their own. Shortly after, the duo hit the road for Austin’s annual South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival and continued their road trip to New York City, something they’ve wanted to do for years. 

“We’re looking to tour as much as possible,” Todd explains. “It’s part of why we wanted to do a band with just the two of us—to be able to make kind of, like, a vacation out of it, where it’s just the two of us together, and we’re able to drive around in our car. It’s not like working. We don’t have to be away from each other to do what we’re doing. I am really looking forward to that aspect.” 

While traveling with other people has its merits, it also has its challenges. Oftentimes, the vastly different personalities can throw a wrench in the process, but for the Finks, it makes more sense. 

“We’ve been together for so long that our tastes have melded,” she says. “From what we like to do to where we like to eat—we just know each other. That’s one of the hardest parts about being on the road with other people—always having to compromise. This seems like a dream scenario.” 

Being a quintessential “rock-star couple,” however, didn’t always come easy. In the beginning, like all relationships, there were some hiccups, but it was nothing they couldn’t work through. 

“He got in trouble in the beginning years,” she jokes. “Not like cheating or anything, but figuring out what a married man can do—like he couldn’t go skinny-dipping with girls on tour anymore [laughs].”

“I thought the ocean was huge [laughs],” he replies. “You don’t get a manual when you get married. You don’t know exactly where the line is.” 

One big lesson they learned, however, is to not get caught up in the minutiae of everyday life. 

“Pick your battles,” Orenda says. “You have to keep the greatest good of the relationship as the highest priority. Everyone slips on that in any relationship. If you’re in a really intense working relationship together, you’re going to have friction. It’s figuring out how to deal with that friction. You want the outcome to be forgiveness and loving each other. If you slip up, remember that’s the ultimate goal.” 

“Winning an argument really isn’t worth anything,” Todd adds. “The goal isn’t to win. It’s to get back to a place of love.”

facebook.com/closenessmusic

This article was printed in the May/June 2017 edition of Encounter.

Broom Man

April 18, 2017 by
Photography by Kent Sievers

Sculptor John Lajba has made a name for himself by documenting Omaha’s most iconic figures. His subjects range from joyous to somber.

One of his bronzes, The Road To Omaha, is a familiar image broadcast during ESPN coverage of the College World Series.

When police officer Kerrie Orozco was killed in 2015, hundreds of mourners left flowers and mementos at the foot of Lajba’s fallen officer sculpture, just outside of Omaha police headquarters.

Now, a group hopes another unforgettable figure will join the ranks of Lajba’s definitive sculptural portraits of Omaha history.

Family and friends knew the bronze-to-be as the Rev. Livingston Wills. For the rest of the city, he was “The Broom Man,” a man born with only 5 percent of his vision who traversed the city on foot, for decades, selling his brooms.

The Broom Man Project—formed in March 2016—is an effort by David Jensen, Jim Backens, Marc Kraft, and Lajba to memorialize Wills, who died in 2008 at the age of 91. Almost 10 years after his death, people still vividly recall Wills selling his brooms on routes that took him through North Omaha, Benson, and up through Countryside Village.

The Broom Man Project launched a GoFundMe campaign last October to fund a sculpture in honor of Wills. Since its launch, the site has raised approximately $9,000 of its $150,000 goal. Downtown Omaha Inc. has almost matched that amount, bringing the total raised so far to about $15,000.

“Our very first contribution was five dollars,” Jensen says.

A Facebook page, dedicated to Wills, is filled with posts recounting memories of meeting him. One post called for people to post pictures of brooms purchased from Wills.

While many fondly recall long conversations with Wills, at times, he could be very business-oriented: Get the sale. Move on to the next customer. Get another sale.

Jane’s Health Market in Benson is situated at the location of one of his many regular stops. Owner Jane Beran says she bought several brooms from Wills.

“I can’t remember him sticking around much. I would just buy a broom from him, and he’d be on his way,” Beran says.

Wills was born in Brownsville, Tennessee, about 60 miles northeast of Memphis. In Brownsville, he began making brooms out of cornstalk. He eventually moved to Nebraska, where he studied English and history at Union College in Lincoln. He then moved to Omaha, where he was a pastor at the Tabernacle Church of Christ.

For decades, to support his family, he would sell brooms, going door-to-door and to businesses. Toting brooms over his shoulder, and using a cane for support, he would use his whistle as a sort of a sonar to detect nearby obstacles. Lance Criswell, grandson of Wills, would see him when he was done with a typical workday.

“I’d say, ‘What have you been doing, Rev.?’ and he’d say ‘scratchin,’” Criswell recalls. “‘Scratchin’—that means he’s been working.”

In 2006, Barbara Atkins-Baldwin wrote a book based on her family’s experiences with Wills. The book, The Blind Broom Salesman, was reissued with a new cover last year. Atkins-Baldwin pledged to donate all of the profits from her book to The Broom Man Project. In November, Leavenworth Bar posted a check for more than $550 to go toward the sculpture on The Broom Man’s Facebook page.

When it came time to choosing a location for the proposed statue, Lajba wanted the Douglas County Courthouse because of the building’s downtown location and its historical significance. When he first heard about making a sculpture in Wills’ honor, Lajba envisioned him in his usual routine: walking the streets of Omaha with his array of brooms.

“I want him to be well dressed,” Lajba says. “I really want to show how he cared about himself.”

Criswell says his grandfather had more than a hundred suits. “He’d always like to look professional when he was out selling his brooms,” Criswell says.

Criswell sat with Jensen, Lajba, and Tom Hanus at Tourek Engraving to discuss his grandfather and his impact on the Omaha community. As they conversed, the temperature outside was a crisp 18 degrees, much as it would have been when Wills walked his routes in winter.

Tourek Engraving has become sort of a centralized headquarters for the Broom Man Project, with copies of The Blind Broom Salesman stacked beside flyers that detail the Broom Man Project’s ambitions.

“If he walked through this door right now, he’d squeeze through the door, because the brooms would be over his back, and he’d say, ‘My friends!’” Criswell says, pointing to the front door. “He’d always come in with that presence. He became a part of the fabric of Omaha.”

Visit gofundme.com/thebroomman and facebook.com/livingstonwills to learn more about The Broom Man Project.

Seamus Campbell Takes the Stage

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Like so many kids, 9-year-old Seamus Campbell loves The Jungle Book. He’s one of countless children to be enchanted by the thought of boppin’ around the jungle with cool, scat-singing Baloo, relishing the “Bare Necessities” that can make life so grand.

But he’s not just another kid imagining himself to be Mowgli, the freewheeling man-cub searching for his place in the jungle. This year, Campbell became Mowgli.

Omaha Performing Arts’ Disney Musicals in Schools program, produced in collaboration with Disney Theatrical Group, let Campbell and some of his Harrison Elementary classmates take on the role of storyteller and perform in their own production of The Jungle Book.

Campbell, who played the role of Mowgli, uses words like “proud” and “fun” a lot when describing his experience.

“It’s been so fun,” Campbell says. “Mowgli gets a lot of lines and gets to move around a lot. I like the dancing, running around, talking, getting to put on costumes…It’s fun that we all get to know each other better.”

Campbell’s love of The Jungle Book—particularly Disney’s 1967 animated movie version—was his original inspiration to participate. He describes Mowgli as “very stubborn,” but says his character learns “a whole lot, like trusting your friends and listening to others.”

Kathleen Lawler Hustead, Omaha Performing Arts’ education manager, says her team kicked off the program for the 2016/2017 school year, letting third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade students from five OPS elementary schools explore musical theater from a new angle. Omaha Performing Arts is the 13th arts organization in the nation to implement the Disney Musicals in Schools program, which began in 2009.

“Disney only selects performing arts organizations with strong education departments, so we were thrilled to be among the select few brought into the program,” Lawler Hustead says.

The program is designed for sustainability, so Disney-trained, local teaching artists work with each school in its first year to develop school team members into music directors, choreographers, and stage managers, with the skills and confidence to continue the program when the teaching artists transition to the next batch of first-year schools.

“The great part about this program is it will continue for many years to come,” Lawler Hustead says, noting that after schools complete year one, they move to alumni status and continue to receive support and free or discounted materials in subsequent years. “We’ll add five new schools each year, with the eventual goal of nearly every elementary school in the Omaha area, and potentially beyond, having these sustainable musical theater programs.”

“It’s been so fun,” Campbell says. “Mowgli gets a lot of lines and gets to move around a lot. I like the dancing, running around, talking, getting to put on costumes…It’s fun that we all get to know each other better.”

Participating elementary schools are chosen based on need and commitment to sustaining the program in coming years. In addition to Harrison performing The Jungle Book, Omaha’s other Disney Musicals in Schools pioneers were Crestridge, Kennedy, and Wilson Focus—each performing The Lion King—and Liberty performing Aladdin.

After 17 weeks of preparation and rehearsal, Campbell and the other participating students performed the 30-minute shows at their schools. They also performed select songs at an all-school Student Share Celebration, produced by Omaha Performing Arts and held at the Holland Center.

“I am so proud of our kids and staff,” Harrison Principal Andrea Haynes says. “It just shows you that kids have this capacity and latent talent, and it’s our job to give them opportunities to cultivate that.”

Teaching artists Kelsey Schwenker and Sarah Gibson coached the Harrison team, which consisted of (director) fourth grade teacher Callen Goodrich, (music director) first grade teacher Anna Rivedal, (choreographer) librarian Rachel Prieksat, (stage manager) parent Danielle Herzog, (costume and set designer) paraprofessional Elizabeth Newman, and (production assistant) school secretary Linda Davey.

While the team successfully conjured Disney magic, there was much more to it than a simple flick of Tinker Bell’s wand. The school team and students devoted many extra hours of hard work and practice. Campbell is quick to agree that being in a musical is part work and part play—so what made him want to devote extra time between busy school days and evening Boy Scouts meetings?

“To make everyone like the play,” he says. “Since my parents and everyone are going to see it, I want to do a good job and make my family proud.”

Campbell’s eyes light up when he describes seeing the set and costumes for the first time.

“When the door opened, we saw there were vines, plants, and a rock—and it was raining glitter!” Campbell says.

The Harrison team created a vibrant jungle atmosphere and costumed the cast into a believable band of panthers, monkeys, snakes, tigers, wolves, bears, and, of course, one “man-cub.” At the Student Share, the creative, colorful costumes on display from all the schools were second only to the students’ enthusiasm.

“It’s been so inspiring to see what this program does for students and teachers, and to watch the students light up and grow over the process,” Lawler Hustead says. “Not only are they learning to sing, dance, and act, they’re learning critical thinking skills, problem-solving, communication, self-confidence, and how to be a team player.”

Campbell, who also loves Star Wars, football, and Percy Jackson, says his experience taught him to be brave and, of course, that the show must always go on.

“[If you mess up], you just redo the line or skip by that line,” he says confidently.

Haynes says exposing young kids to the arts fosters an important self-reliance.

“It can plant the seed in them that they can do anything,” she says. “That sense of self-confidence is so important in this world, and will carry you through all kinds of obstacles.”

Visit omahaperformingarts.org for more information.

This article was published in the May/June 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Seamus Campbell

A Treasure in Stained Glass

April 16, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Sometime around 1904, when Omaha Bishop Richard Scannell visited Europe to invite young men to serve as priests among the German-American members of the Omaha diocese, the Rev. Bernard Sinne was among those who responded.

Sinne was born Dec. 9, 1878, in Elsen, Westphalia. He was ordained to the priesthood May 5, 1904, in Freiburg. The following August, Sinne was appointed pastor of St. Mary Magdalene Church in Omaha. He was 27 years old and served as pastor for 57 years.

Before Sinne left Germany for Omaha, he was told by his bishop that he was “a goat to go to Omaha, where he would have to ride horseback all day and sleep in an Indian tent all night.” Sinne ended up in Omaha doing neither.

What Sinne did do was build and preserve a church that holds the most beautiful stained glass windows in Omaha, windows from the studios of Franz Mayer in Munich, Germany.

There is no other church in Omaha, no other church in the state of Nebraska, and probably no other church in the United States that has such a fine collection of stained glass as does St. Mary Magdalene at 19th and Dodge streets. This church could be considered the Sistine Chapel of stained glass in the United States.

It wasn’t an easy thing to do, to keep St. Mary Magdalene Church above ground. In the 1920s, the city administration decided to lower Dodge Street because the incline was too great. The church was then “built down” to accommodate the new street level.

After building the church down and turning the basement into the main level, Sinne ordered a new set of windows from the Franz Mayer company for the new main level.

In 1926, Sinne was honored for his work lowering the church and his many years of service at St. Mary Magdalene. At the ceremony, he admitted that the cutting down of Dodge Street’s hill “was the greatest cross that ever visited me. But with your assistance, we have been able to bear the heavy expense [estimated to be $150,000].”

There are other churches in the United States that have stained glass windows from the Franz Mayer studios, but none have two full sets, spanning a generation, that display the work of artisans from Munich so well.

Ironically, representatives of the Franz Mayer company had forgotten about their windows in Omaha. It seems that the destruction brought about by two world wars had devastated the company’s records. It was only after an inquiry was made about the “Good Samaritan on the Battlefield” window did they search their remaining records. To their surprise, they realized they had shipped stained glass to Omaha in the 1930s.

Of all the windows in the church, the “Good Samaritan on the Battlefield” is probably the most unusual. This window was installed between the two world wars, at a time when German immigrants to Omaha were involved in a difficult question of identity—were they Americans or were they Germans?

With Hitler on the rise in Germany, the question of patriotism took on new meaning for both  Sinne and his many German parishioners. In the battle scene depicted in the Good Samaritan window, we see written in Latin, “Pro Deus et Patria.” For God and Country.

The Good Samaritan window is also significant because, while working with a representative of the present-day Franz Mayer company, the church discovered the original cartoon for the window design.

Other windows in the church also have stories to tell. The window that depicts the Evangelist Luke bears a dedication to the contractor Benno Kunkel, who built the present church for $40,000.

As the German community in Omaha moved west into St. Joseph’s parish and the bishops were working to build St. Cecilia Cathedral, Sinne quietly made St. Mary Magdalene Church into an Omaha artistic treasure. In so doing, he also left us with some mysteries.

Why is there no window depicting the crucifixion at St. Mary Magdalene? Most Catholic churches have a window that shows the crucifixion. Instead, opposite each other in the church, windows depict the birth and resurrection of Jesus. Furthermore why in a church named after St. Mary Magdalene, is there no window dedicated to her? Instead, there are two windows dedicated to St. Cecilia.

What will be the future of this Nebraska treasure of stained glass? In a city that often seems dead set on demolishing its past and replacing it with more glass and steel boxes, the future does not look bright for these historic windows or the church.

Many of the windows are now more than 100 years old and are in need of repair. Parts of some windows are missing. The church itself needs extensive repair, and just like a masterpiece by Rembrandt that has an elegant frame around it, so the building that holds these stained glass treasures has to become the elegant frame that holds the windows up.

We owe it to the memory of Sinne that the art treasure he has given Omaha be preserved and restored. Some men build a cathedral on a hill to demonstrate their power, other men build a church (and decorate with windows from the Franz Mayer company) to show their love.

Researching the Windows

The gravel walk to the Douglas County Historical Society is strewn with red maple leaves. It is early in a dry November. Already, the Crook House next door to the society library is decorated with Christmas garlands.

Then Monsignor Sinne had given an interview to the Greater Omaha Historical Society in 1959. The interview was conducted in the rectory at St. Mary Magdalene Church. That tape is now in the possession of the Douglas Historical Society, and I am on my way to hear it. The interview was conducted by the Rev. Henry Casper, S.J., author of the History of the Catholic Church in Nebraska, and an unidentified woman.

The old tape player in the historical society’s listening room is covered in dust. Sinne’s voice, the voice of an older man, sounds dusty, too. He was 83 years old at the time of the interview.

On the tape, which breaks up from time to time, Sinne relates his experiences as a young man and new pastor in Omaha. You can still hear a German accent in his voice. In the interview, he admits that when he came to Omaha his first impression of the city was seeing all the beer signs. When asked about that, he remarked, “Lord in heaven!”

We learn from the tapes that Leo A. Daly was one of the architects of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. The Leo A Daly company still works in Omaha today (and maintains its international headquarters in the city). After getting an architect, the monsignor went to Chicago to get a construction firm. He claims, all together, the work on the chapel cost $275,000.

All in all, the taped interview does not reveal much about the windows at St. Mary Magdalene. But the oral history does shed light on the monsignor’s personal background. He came from a wealthy German family. This may account for where the money came from to decorate the church and buy the windows.

It’s disheartening to realize that the interview recording—which lasts more than an hour—does not answer questions we would like to ask Sinne. At the end of the tape, I realize this voice from the past is also a voice from another world.

Then, there comes a surprise. Besides the two cassette tapes, the Historical Society has a manila folder with newspaper clippings about Sinne. Mixed up among the yellowed clippings is a copy of a short article from the World-Herald on Thursday, Aug. 6, 1914. The article says that Sinne had three brothers: Two of them were in the German army, to be posted to Cologne, no doubt preparing to fight in WWI. The third brother was in the United States and “responding to the reserves call.”

The tape rewinds. The monsignor’s voice sounds weary. I pack the laptop and sling my backpack over a shoulder. The old door to the library creeks open as I leave and walk down the wooden steps. I kick at fallen red maple leaves on the way to my car.

Did it happen that Sinne’s brothers fought on different sides during WWI? Could this be the reason for the war memorial window, for the Good Samaritan on the Battlefield? Could it be that Sinne had this window installed to remember his brothers? More unanswered questions.

The late afternoon sunlight is brilliant while casting long shadows. This glow of a dwindling autumn holds not the promise of spring. It lends its light only a short while.

Robert Klein Engler is a member of St. Mary Magdalene parish and works part-time at Joslyn Art Museum. He holds degrees from the University of Illinois-Urbana and the University of Chicago Divinity School. Visit archomaha.org for more information.

“The Good Samaritan on the Battlefield”

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of 60 Plus.